The Department of Energy lost plutonium last year — and it’s still missing

The Department of Energy lost plutonium last year — and it’s still missing
U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry testifies during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, October 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. Perry was confirmed as Energy Secretary less than three weeks before samples of plutonium and cesium went missing. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Thieves stole plutonium from the Department of Energy 16 months ago. And it’s still missing.

Here’s what you need to know

In March 2017, two security experts from the Department of Energy were transporting two plastic covered disks: one containing plutonium and the other containing cesium. Plutonium is used to make nuclear weapons (and to power time traveling DeLoreans), while radioactive cesium can be used to make a dirty bomb.

These two experts stopped at a hotel in a high-crime neighborhood, leaving the radioactive samples and their testing equipment on the backseat of their rental car. Perhaps predictably, the next morning they found that their car had been broken into and the plutonium, cesium, and their own equipment was gone.

None of it has ever been found.

Since the incident, neither the FBI nor local law enforcement has publicly acknowledged what happened. After learning about it from a mention in an internal Department of Energy Report, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) used a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain these details from the official police report.

This isn’t the only nuclear material missing

CPI reported that since nuclear research began, as much as six tons of radioactive material has been designated as MUF, or “material unaccounted for,” by the U.S. government.

The two experts who lost the nuclear materials worked for the National nuclear Security Administration’s Off-Site Radioactive Source Recovery Program, that has reportedly recovered radioactive material from 38,317 sources in the U.S. alone, as of June 6, and an additional 3,133 from outside the U.S. This material was recovered from all fifty states, although some states had more sources (like Texas with 8,566) than others (North Dakota only had one).

According to an inspector general report, the Department of Energy “may be unable to detect lost or stolen material.”

A spokesperson for the Idaho National Laboratory, the intended destination for the stolen plutonium, told CPI that the amount stolen was so small that there was “little or no danger” of it being used to make a weapon.